The Fight For Fair Housing

The people striving to fix Oregon’s housing discrimination problem

Last month, I went on vacation to Seattle. My boyfriend and I decided to book an Airbnb, generally a cheaper option than a hotel.

In preparing for the weeklong excursion, I told my boyfriend he would have to be the one to set up the Airbnb profile and book the trip. He’s white and I’m black. I didn’t want to risk our being denied a place to stay due to my profile picture.

It may seem like an unrealistic fear, but it’s not unwarranted. Last July, The Guardian published a story about an Airbnb host who canceled a woman’s reservation via text message just minutes before she arrived, stating: “I wouldn’t rent it to u if u were the last person on earth,” and “One word says it all. Asian.”

That’s just one among a plethora of stories about discrimination with Airbnb. Later in that same month, Airbnb partnered with the NAACP to reach out to communities of color and help increase the diversity of the website’s rental hosts, according to the NAACP. Airbnb also committed to hiring a more diverse workforce internally.

But housing discrimination isn’t limited to vacation rental sites.

Housing discrimination also happens with permanent housing situations — renting an apartment or attempting to buy a house. In places like Eugene and Portland, where the housing market is super tight, this makes it even harder to secure housing for already marginalized groups.

With Oregon’s specific history of deterring people of color from land and home ownership, the fact that racial discrimination in housing still exists should not be terribly surprising. But other forms of housing discrimination take place here, too, and they tend to get overshadowed — discrimination regarding disability, source of income, sexual orientation and other identifications.

But such forms of discrimination are rarely as blatant as a message of “I won’t rent to you because you’re Asian,” so they’re more difficult to prove.

In 2016 alone, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) received 60 housing discrimination complaints for the state of Oregon. The individual cases are not available to view in detail, and the most recent 2017 report is not available yet, according to Public Information Officer Leland Jones.

Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) handles complaints together with HUD. BOLI has more specific data for regions within Oregon.

Over the past five years in Lane County, 58 housing discrimination complaints have been filed with BOLI. More than half of those cases were closed due to “no substantial evidence.” Most of those cases cited either source-of-income discrimination or disability discrimination.

But those numbers are not actually an indicator of what’s going on, fair housing advocates say.

Allan Lazo, executive director of Fair Housing Council of Oregon (FHCO), says housing discrimination goes largely underreported. The fact that these cases are hard to prove also discourages tenants from taking action.

“It can be very difficult to get that kind of evidence in a housing discrimination case, because housing discrimination today just looks very different than when the fair housing act passed 50 years ago,” Lazo says. “And that’s because, at that time, discrimination and segregation around those issues were blatant. They were just flat out. ‘No blacks here’ or ‘Whites only.’ And you certainly don’t see that anymore, so it can be difficult in a complaint of that nature to prove discrimination.”

The Fair Housing Act — also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 — “prohibits discrimination by direct providers of housing, such as landlords and real estate companies as well as other entities … whose discriminatory practices make housing unavailable to persons because of: race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status or disability,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Oregon also adds marital status, source of income, sexual orientation and gender identity to that list. Eugene additionally protects against housing discrimination based on ethnicity and age.

FHCO, based in Portland, is dedicated to “ending housing discrimination and ensuring equal access to housing opportunities throughout the state,” Lazo says.

They do that through their housing discrimination hotline, which Lazo estimates receives approximately 2,000 calls a year, along with providing other services.

About 10 percent of those statewide hotline calls are what FHCO calls bona fide fair housing allegations, Lazo says.

“We get a lot of calls from people who don’t know whether or not they’ve been discriminated against. We kind of talk with them and try to figure out whether or not it’s a case of discrimination,” he adds. “About 10 percent of those calls, about 200 of them, are bona fide allegations and we will further investigate those.”

Lazo says some of those complaints are more easily resolved than others.

“Some of the cases we have around physical disability, those are a little more clear because the rights for disabilities are pretty well defined, so it’s pretty easy for us to work with the housing provider and say, ‘You’re in violation of the fair housing act,’ either federal or local or state laws, and it’s pretty clear,” he says.

Other forms of discrimination — for example, disability involving mental health — aren’t as clearly outlined. “The other types of complaints are much more difficult to move through that legal process, for sure,” Lazo says.

According to data from FHCO, from “July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017, the Fair Housing Council of Oregon screened 1,859 intake claims for possible housing discrimination from throughout the state of Oregon; 102 of those intakes came from residents of or properties within the city of Eugene.”

“[Twenty-six] of the [Eugene] intake calls, or 25.49 percent, resulted in further investigations of a fair housing allegation,” according to FHCO.

Fifteen of those “bona fide” 26 intake calls were related to disability complaints, three were related to race and/or color, three to sex and so on.

Lazo says FHCO does its own investigations, but also refers people to BOLI or HUD if they want to lodge a formal complaint.

Along with its hotline, Lazo says FHCO also does testing throughout the state. “That’s like secret shopper testing,” he says. The organization sends in pairs of people, one in a protected class and one not, to observe whether they’re being treated differently in the rental process.

“You might be quoted one rent and the person behind you might be quoted a different rent or a vacancy or told about specials. Generally, what we’re looking at is much more subtle differential treatment than would have been in the long ago past,” he says.

Lazo says FHCO does this type of testing constantly, for various entities — local, state and federal jurisdictions.

FHCO also provides education and outreach.

“We do trainings of housing consumers, advocates, social service agency folks, jurisdictions, housing providers, all up and down the line in the housing transaction and throughout the state,” Lazo says. “And then we also do outreach to make sure that folks in all those communities understand what their rights and or responsibilities are around fair housing.”

Lazo says FHCO also advocates for public policy, like House Bills 4134 and 4010 that passed in the Oregon Legislature a few months ago. Both bills help deal specifically with racial housing discrimination.

HB 4134 establishes an easier procedure to petition to remove racially discriminatory language from home deeds. HB 4010 establishes a task force to address racial housing discrimination — to figure out ways to level the playing field for people of color who have been historically discriminated against.


Rep. Julie Fahey

Rep. Julie Fahey and Sen. James Manning Jr. sponsored both bills.

Fahey says a big motivator behind these bills is the history of racial housing discrimination still affecting us today.

“When you look at the data behind levels of homeownership in Oregon, there are significant differences based on race,” she says. “So communities of color own homes at lower levels and when we look at the history of housing discrimination not just in Oregon, but around the country, we systematically blocked out millions of families from the most common way to accumulate wealth in this country in the 20th century,” Fahey adds.

“The past discrimination with redlining and restrictive covenants that blocked people from buying homes in particular neighborhoods, that still reverberates today. The impact of that past discrimination is still felt today.”

Such history is felt today in the discriminatory language still present in some Oregon home deeds.

“There were a couple things that came up,” Manning says about motivation for passing these bills. “One was the exclusionary rule that’s been on the books for years. It started back during the Hoover administration to exclude African-Americans and people of color from purchasing homes, which started redlining to move people to the urban centers.”


Sen. James Manning Jr.

He continues: “So Oregon fully embraced that early on and in order for a lot of these developers to get loans and in order to build this new housing they had to, by law, dealing with the federal housing administration, they had to include the exclusionary rule, which prohibited African-Americans and people of color from purchasing homes. Oregon has never taken that language out.”

Though this language is obviously no longer legally binding thanks to the Fair Housing Act, it’s still present in some older house deeds. HB 4134 streamlines the process to get that language removed.

“It used to be very expensive to take that language out of the documentation,” Manning says. “Now we’ve reversed it so there is no expense, or a very limited expense to do that. So that’s one step forward.”

Fahey says the other bill, HB 4010, not only addresses the history of discrimination but will try to uncover current issues. “It’s also to try and identify whether there are currently either intentionally or unintentionally discriminatory practices that are currently existing as well, particularly in the mortgage industry,” she says.

The task force for HB 4010 formed officially June 12 of this year. It consists of Reps. Mark Meek and Richard Vial, and Sens. Manning and Cliff Bentz. Fahey says it also includes people in the real estate industry, organizations that serve communities of color and members of the public.

“The task force has until September 2019 to submit its specific recommendations, so they’ll be a fairly long process of discussing data and collecting data and coming up with recommended solutions,” Fahey says.

Those on the property-owner side of things are also striving to stop housing discrimination.

Tia Politi is president of the Lane County Rental Owners Association (ROA). She’s also a property manager with Homes for Good, “the largest provider of low-income housing in Lane County,” she says.  She says that, in her role with ROA, she works with the association’s board of directors to “educate rental owners on how to run an ethical and profitable business.”

Politi says that, from her viewpoint, she doesn’t know the full scope of housing discrimination, but acknowledges that it can happen anywhere.

“In my experience, discrimination is present everywhere and Lane County is no exception, but more often results from a lack of education as opposed to a legitimate attempt to discriminate against a member of a protected class,” she says.

Politi says the ROA offers classes and instruction to landlords and property managers, and membership includes access to a “telephone helpline that allows rental owners to call for guidance if they’re unsure about some area of law or procedure.”

“Our classes, programs, helpline and educational materials have made us the largest association of private landlords in the state under the umbrella of the Oregon Rental Housing Association,” Politi says.

Regardless of all the parties attempting to quell the impact of housing discrimination in Eugene and throughout the state, as these complaints and court cases come trickling in every year, it’s clearly difficult to stop something that might be as difficult to prove as a feeling — the slight inkling that you may be getting treated differently due to your skin color, mental illness, income level or sexual orientation — rather than as rock-hard evidence.

And rarely can something invisible to the naked eye be proven in a courtroom.